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‘The opposite of love’ and the abuse of power: with Gérard Depardieu and John Berger

2 Apr
Welcome-to-New-York-depardieau-940x520

Depardieu sticks out his tongue as his stomach takes centre stage

I missed the film Welcome to New York, a thinly disguised account of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn scandal, when it was released a couple of years back, but watched it last night with Mrs Blanco. The film stars Gérard Depardieu as ‘Georges Deveraux’ and the first twenty minutes of the film are pretty ghastly, with a lot of fumbling and groping, forced laughter, ice-cream smearing and buttock-slapping, climaxing in a display of loud, ursine grunting from the gross and panting Depardieu, who hasn’t even bothered to take off his raincoat. Later, we are treated to the formidable sight of the actor stripping in a police cell, his stomach unfurling from his pants like a mudslide, under the bewildered gaze of a police guard, who, as Depardieu struggles to pull on his socks, is heard to mutter ‘quite a workout’. But the later scenes between Depardieu and his wife Sophie (played by an exasperated Jacqueline Bisset) are fraught with a compelling and awful tension. In one their arguments, the Bisset character tells Depardieu that ‘the opposite of love is not hate, but indifference’.

But I have begun with a digression, since the comment that the Bisset character makes to her chronically sex-obsessed husband reminded me of something John Berger wrote, in an entirely different context:

The opposite of to love is not to hate but to separate. If love and hate have something in common it is because, in both cases, their energy is that of bringing and holding together – the lover with the loved, the one who hates with the hated. Both passions are tested by separation.

And, of course, separation can lead to indifference, or else arise from it. Indifference to the object of one’s emotions, whether originating in love or hate, leads to, or is born of, separation.

In and our faces, my heart, brief as photos, Berger wrote of his stay in Livorno during the late 1940s. The city was war-scarred and poor, and Berger learned, he says, for the first time, ‘the ingenuity of the dispossessed.’ And he writes:

It was there too I discovered that I wanted as little as possible to do in this world with those who wield power. This has turned out to be a lifelong aversion.

Which brings us back to Depardieu, in his role as a fictionalised Strauss-Kahn. In a peculiar little intro to the film, the actor tells reporters he was moved to take the part because he doesn’t trust politicians and ‘hated’ the person he was playing in the film. Now, I don’t entirely trust this contrived little vignette, but concur fully with Berger’s aversion. I have an instinctive distrust of anyone who wants to exercise power, whether in politics, local government, or institutions such as ‘The University’. Welcome to New York is about the gross misuse of power (Do you know who I am? Deveraux asks the terrified hotel cleaner before sexually assaulting her). The arrogance of that question! It speaks of the assumption of power allowing ugly minds to prosper in the exercise of self-aggrandisement. But it is a question that every tin Hitler wants to ask, across the spectrum, and which might better be re-phrased: Do you know who I think I am?

 

Of Dogs and Death

26 Apr

 

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

Dogs (such as this one, in the Museum of Anthropology, Mexico City) guided their people to the next world in Aztec culture.

 

I wrote once before about Juan Rulfo and his novel Pedro Paramo, which has unparalleled status in Mexican literature and was a major influence on the young Gabriel García Márquez on his arrival in Mexico City in 1961.

I recently spent an evening reading Juan Rulfo’s short stories El llano en llama (translated into English both as The Plain in Flames and The Burning Plain). The stories were written in the long wake of the Mexican revolution, which coincided with Rulfo’s own childhood in an orphanage in Jalisco where, he said later, he often saw corpses hanging from posts, and that he spent all his time reading, “because you couldn’t go out for fear of getting shot.” These stories lead the reader into a space of silence and mystery, where reality breaks down and we enter a world that might be the antechamber to the afterlife, if the afterlife you have in mind is bleak, featureless, devoid of anything that could pass as life at all. But there are ghosts, at least.

The rhythms of Rulfo’s prose remind me of what Octavio Paz wrote about his archetypal Mexican: “his language is full of reticences, of metaphors and allusions, of unfinished phrases, while his silence is full of tints, folds, thunderheads, sudden rainbows, indecipherable threats . . .” There are threats aplenty, but they are unformed, vaguely defined and usually at some distance from the place of narration – yet always getting closer. Events take place in a half-light, as characters stumble towards yet another failure, or else death.

In the first story in Rulfo’s collection, ‘They have given us land’, a group of four landless men trudge across an arid plain. They have been promised land by some government official, but the ground beneath them is dry, stony, utterly unsuitable for planting anything that might grow. There had been more than twenty in their group, and they had horses and rifles, but now there are only four, and they have nothing, apart from a hen, which one of them keeps hidden inside his coat. “After walking for so many hours without coming across even the shadow of a tree, even the seed of a tree, nor the root of anything, we heard the barking of dogs.”

In another story ‘Don’t you hear the dogs barking’, a man carries his adult son on his back to try and find a doctor in the town of Tonaya. The younger man is wounded. It is night-time and the old man cannot see where he is going. As the pair draw near to the town we learn through the father’s faltering monologue that his son is a thief and a murderer, and he is only carrying him out of respect for the boy’s dead mother.

In these two stories, the barking of dogs indicates the existence, if not of hope precisely, then of some form of life, of human dwellings at the very least. But perhaps that is a false reading. In Mesoamerican cultures dogs were considered to have the powers to guide the dead to a new life after death, which explains why dogs have frequently been found buried with people in pre-Columbian sites.

And of course, at the end of Malcolm Lowry’s masterpiece, Under the Volcano, a dead dog is thrown down the ravine after the dead body of the unfortunate consul.

To come full circle, I discovered today that Rulfo had a bit-part in a Spanish film based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez. The film is called En este pueblo no hay ladrones (In this town there are no thieves), and is exceptional in that the cast is made up of notable writers, visual artists and film directors, including Luis Buñuel (clearly relishing his performance as the town priest), Leonora Carrington, Arturo Ripstein, Alfonso Arao, Abel Quezada, and Gabriel García Márquez himself.

 

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

Juan Rulfo (left) and Abel Quezada having a beer, in a scene from ‘En este pueblo no hay ladrones’ based on a short story by Gabriel García Márquez.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Accidental Tourist

30 Mar

 

Notre Dame from Pont des Arts

So I’m crossing a bridge, to get from A to B, and suddenly I’m on a film set. No, let’s correct that: I’m on a rolling series of film sets. This is what happens on a brisk stroll around central Paris. First, a polka through the old Jewish quarter, Le Marais, then across the river via the Pont des Arts (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, The Bourne Identity) as shown here in my artfully contrived photo, where lovers place padlocks, cadenas d’amour, in order to imprison the object of their desire for perpetuity. Then to lunch at Le Polidor, made famous by Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

polidor

I am pleased to report that our waitress lived up to my wildest expectations, embodying the French talent for what foreigners erroneously believe to be rudeness (a kind of exaggerated politeness, dressed with venom) which is actually something quite different: it is, as I discovered – and it took me years to work this out – a direct challenge to the interlocutor. It says: how are going to take this? Lying down like un wimp, or joining in with a bit of callous and vituperative banter of your own? If you opt for the latter, you cannot lose. If you succumb to the former – the classic anglo-american mistake – you inevitably feel maltreated and offended. So join in, dammit! Throw back a few witty and sophisticated remarks of your own, not forgetting to smile charmingly as you do so. It cannot fail.

Joyce residence, Paris

Later in the afternoon, after strolling past the houses once occupied by Joyce (a British writer of Irish Origin?) and Hemingway (but also, and perhaps more significantly, Pound) what could be merrier than a crêpe, in a crêperie which my Argentinian companion, Jorge, assures me is the only place in Paris that serves dulce de leche – which I must admit I find hard to believe – in Rue Mouffetard.

Creperie in Rue Mouffetard

Also recognizable from Amélie in Rue Mouffetard is the seafood stall at the bottom of that street, which nagged at my memory from I knew not where, but now I do.

seafood stall in Rue Mouffetard

It’s quite possible that a short walk around the fifth arrondissement satisfies the needs of all five senses more rapidly than anywhere else on earth. But who knows, perhaps I’m just biased.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I set out on a journey

21 Dec

I set out on a journey

 

Imagine my surprise (horror/fascination/wonder) on receiving a photo on my iphone a couple of months ago, displaying the shoulder of a regular at The Promised Land (a charming fellow and good acquaintance: I do not know him well enough to claim him as a friend) who had had tattooed upon himself a short poem of mine, in its entirety. The poem is called ‘Restless Geography’, and, in case it is difficult to make out the words in the picture, it goes like this:

I set out on a journey, but the geography would not

stay still, and I ended up somewhere I hadn’t intended

going.

I wanted to use this as the title of a collection of prose poems, but the publishers said it was too long, and I would have to cut it down, which I didn’t want to do. So we called the book Sad Giraffe Café instead.

The night before last, the house having being borrowed by daughters, who were entertaining friends, I put down the book of poems I was reading, and Mrs Blanco and I set off under Scary Bridge, and across the road into the Vue cinema and fitness complex. The long haul up the escalators presented a panorama of the huge gym on the first floor. The place was almost empty, just a few Wednesday night loners pumping iron and a solitary immobile cyclist. All three of them were young men. There was something tragic in this display of righteous pumping and pedalling in the perennial pursuit for a well-toned physique and bulging biceps under the blinding glare of strip-lighting. All I could see, as we glided past them on our upward journey, was a dreadful torpor. All I could see – as Beckett might have said, actually did say – was ashes. This set the tone for the rest of the evening. The chatty girl in the empty ticket hall (a dozen cinemas, no visible customers) told us we were the only people to have bought tickets for Seven Psychopaths, the new film by Martin McDonagh, and starring Colin Farrell, Woody Harrelson, Sam Rockwell, Christopher Walken and Tom Waits (pictured, here, in an empty cinema).

Tom Waite in empty cinema

 

So Mrs Blanco and I chose our seats, two thirds of the way back, next to the aisle, and had the place to ourselves. This is a strange sensation. A private viewing in a full-size cinema. The seats are very comfortable at Vue, and there is plenty of space, but even so it is a luxury to lounge in abandoned fashion, and lounge we did. It is a pleasure to be able to loudly curse the fools who populate the ads and the trailers, as practically every film that Hollywood chucks at places like the Vue franchise are complete tripe. Trivial meaningless drivel circling around a half dozen well-worn and clichéd themes, all of them dire and depressing.

But the empty cinema inspires melancholy, rather than depression. The film is entertaining, even if it adheres to many of the post-modern meta-fictional tropes made fashionable by Tarantino. Nevertheless it made me laugh like a loon, which is never a bad thing. Laughed myself almost into a stupor at various points in the movie, in fact.

We came home around midnight, and the party was breaking up. The young were setting off for Clwb Ifor Bach or some other Cardiff nightspot.

Earlier in the evening, when I had been reading through the Selected Poems of Roger Garfitt, two short lines from his poem ‘The Journey’ had stood out:

I had to go on

without me

And I realised these lines evoked the precise emotion that had (paradoxically) accompanied me earlier that evening, as I passed the young men pumping iron in the empty gym, on our way up the escalator to the empty cinema. I realised also that if I had not been accompanied by Mrs Blanco, my evening would have been unutterably desolate and solitary (in a bad way). Company helps divert us, temporarily, from our essential and terrifying aloneness, allows us to go on, even if ‘without oneself’, who is unaccountably absent, then at least sharing the emptiness with a warm and sentient human partner.

Afterwards, I lay awake, and the words of Garfitt’s poem stayed with me long into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

Blistering Blue Barnacles!

13 Nov

Buckwheat pancakes with maple syrup and bacon (the latter a rare commodity in the Blanco kitchen these days) all washed down with lashings of coffee made with real beans: what a way to start a Sunday. Not only that, but today’s is the ONE HUNDREDTH (100th) POST SINCE BLANCO BEGAN BLOGGING ON SUNDAY 10TH JULY THIS YEAR. HUZZAH!

Last night we went to see the Spielberg/Jackson production of Tintin (The Adventures of). Mrs Blanco and I were agreed that Captain Haddock (played by Andy Serkis with a magnificent quasi-Scots drawl) and Snowy (aka Milou) the dog stole the show. Tintin is always so damned earnest, but more alarmingly for me, bore an uncanny resemblance to a young Welsh novelist of my acquaintance, and he returned in a more complex hybrid form later, to haunt my dreams, a sort of Tintinesque literary prodigy ploughing the astral plains in search of Ultimate Literary Truth. God help us.

The Tintin stories, for all their being imperialist and racist (charges which no one in their right minds would dispute) created in young readers of my generation – long before the advent of gap years hanging loose on Thai beaches or trekking in the Andes – an ambition to see the world, to become an explorer of worlds. And this is what excited me from an early age. A Dutch student of mine once told me that her grandmother said that children who love the Tintin books will become travellers as adults, and those that don’t won’t. I have a suspicion that something of the kind might be true.

In the meantime I must refrain from embarrassing myself and my dear ones by coming out with exclamations like ‘Great Snakes!’ or ‘Blistering Blue Barnacles!’.

 

 

On a quite unrelated theme, I see the film of Owen Sheers’ novel Resistance will be out shortly, with an introductory talk by the author/scriptwriter at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff on Saturday 26th November, which I will miss as I am off to Mexico that weekend. In fact I was invited to Mexico along with the same Mr Sheers, who is clearly otherwise engaged – but I share with Owen a childhood fantasy – we grew up a few miles (but two decades) away from each other in the Black Mountains – both playing games that involved charging around in the bracken and ferns evading Nazis, something which I discovered quite by accident while chatting to Owen when we were doing a series of readings together in New York (and where Resistance – the novel – was getting its U.S. launch). What a perennial occupation this Nazi obsession must have been for boys growing up in the decades following World War 2: is it still? I have no idea. But how profoundly the mythology of Nazism has infiltrated our psychological as well as our historical agenda.

And this leads me to the third topic of the day, or the fourth if we include breakfast: the front cover of the Vintage paperback edition of The Kindly Ones by Jonathan Littell.

The picture shows a solitary German soldier walking down a country road in what I imagine is some part of the Soviet Union. If, as the acknowledgement claims, the photo was taken in 1943, the soldier is probably in retreat. In the background and to his side, across a field, are other soldiers, themselves walking alone. There is snow on the ground, and it is either still snowing or else there is a mist. The soldier is walking purposefully, and carrying a rifle over his soldier, so is not in a state of combat. I am fascinated by the photograph, and am trying to work out why. Is it to do with the solitary status of the soldier, knowing as we do the vast numbers of troops involved in the invasion of Russia and in its defence, the huge tallies of the dead that Littell’s protagonist Dr Max Aue recites ad absurdum in the introduction to his story? From what source does the poignancy of this image derive, and why does it affect me so?

I think the focus on the individual soldier is meant to reinforce Max Aue’s refrain that yes, he is responsible, he did the things which he recites, but that he was an individual in a chain of command, an infinitesimal cog in a massive destructive machine, and his question is, simply, what would you have done?

Or, more succinctly, in Aue’s words, it is “a fact established by modern history that everyone, or nearly everyone, in a given set of circumstances, does what he is told to do; and pardon me, but there’s not much chance that you’re the exception, any more than I was. If you were born in a country or at a time not only when nobody comes to kill your wife and your children, but also nobody comes to ask you to kill the wives and children of others, then render thanks to God and go in peace. But always keep this thought in mind: you might be luckier than I, but you’re not a better person. Because if you have the arrogance to think you are, that’s just where the danger begins.”

The Kindly Ones, fastidiously researched (Littell spent many years on the project and read over two hundred books on the German occupation of the USSR alone) is without doubt one of the most extraordinary novels of recent times: I would place it, together with Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 as one of the two most significant pieces of literary fiction in the 21st century, at least that I’m aware of. 2666 was written in Spanish, obviously, but Jonathan Littell’s book was first published in French as Les Bienveillantes in 2006 and won the Prix Goncourt. It is marvellously translated by Charlotte Mandell, and maybe I will write about it when I have finished (I am not quite half way through its 960 pages, but will stand by my current appraisal nonetheless), but in the meantime I am fascinated by the cover picture, poorly reproduced here, because I could not find a copy of the original, despite searching online through the Keystone/Getty archive, who apparently hold the original. If any readers know anything at all about this photograph, please let me know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sarkozy eaten alive by bear

3 Nov

A Black Bear

A French President

 

This morning I emerge from a waking dream in which President Sarkozy is being eaten by a black bear. Quite a fitting end, I would think, for this preening bantam cock of a man, to be gobbled up in a couple of mouthfuls by Murder Bear. I can imagine George Papandreou looking on with pleasure, perhaps passing the bear the tzatziki.

Bears have had a role in literature for hundreds of years. Their appearance in folk tales of eastern European origin has filtered into a wider, and more infantilised role, since the appearance of Winnie the Pooh in the 1920s, when bears underwent a perceptual shift, from being a wild threat from the woods to becoming cuddly companions. The Goldilocks story held a particular fascination for Blanco as a child. Is it helpful to inform my reading public of such things, I wonder?

 

 

In the film The Edge (1997) one of the characters gets eaten by a bear, quite graphically, and I remember being shocked at the time, not so much by the violence, but by the impact on the imagination of watching someone being eaten alive by another creature. It was one of the most disturbing things I can remember seeing. So I will have to share it with you.

 

 

 

 

 

A brief illustrated history of the praying mantis

25 Aug

 

This praying mantis appeared on the table in our back yard yesterday. The praying mantis or mantid (sometimes misspelled as ‘preying mantis’, as it is a hunter as well as seeming to adopt a position of prayer) is from the family of mantodea, a term for the species devised by the German entomologist Hermann Burmeister in 1838 from the Greek mantis, meaning ‘prophet’, and eidos, meaning ‘shape’. Prophet-shaped. Burmeister obviously had a sense of humour. More exactly Burmeister determined that it belonged under the Phylum of Arthropoda, the Class of Insecta, the Subclass of Pterygota, the Infraclass Neoptera,  the Superorder of Dictyoptera  and the Order of Mantodea. And, as my daughter pointed out, ‘mantodea’ sounds quite Welsh, though that is neither here nor there.

Mantises have two grasping, spiked forelegs in which prey – and sexual partners – are caught and held securely. According to the Wikipedia entry “Sexual cannibalism is common among mantises in captivity, and under some circumstances may also be observed in the field. The female may start feeding by biting off the male’s head (as they do with regular prey), and if mating had begun, the male’s movements may become even more vigorous in its delivery of sperm. Early researchers thought that because copulatory movement is controlled by a ganglion in the abdomen, not the head, removal of the male’s head was a reproductive strategy by females to enhance fertilisation while obtaining sustenance.”  The second half of the clip is particularly revealing:

 

 

 

Hmmm.

 

But wait, there’s more:

 

“The reason for sexual cannibalism has been debated, with some considering submissive males to be achieving a selective advantage in their ability to produce offspring. This theory is supported by a quantifiable increase in the duration of copulation among males who are cannibalized, in some cases doubling both the duration and the chance of fertilization. This is further supported in a study where males were seen to approach hungry females with more caution, and were shown to remain mounted on hungry females for a longer time, indicating that males actively avoiding cannibalism may mate with multiple females. The act of dismounting is one of the most dangerous times for males during copulation, for it is at this time that females most frequently cannibalize their mates. This increase in mounting duration was thought to indicate that males would be more prone to wait for an opportune time to dismount from a hungry female rather than from a satiated female that would be less likely to cannibalize her mate. Some consider this to be an indication that male submissiveness does not inherently increase male reproductive success, rather that more fit males are likely to approach a female with caution and escape.”

Close up, the mantis head looks very much like a classic representation of an alien:

 

 

 

In a 1957 B Movie, titled The Deadly Mantis, polar ice begins to shift southward following a volcanic eruption. But below the melting ice a praying mantis, 60 metres in length, lies trapped. The melted ice frees it and off it flies, wreaking havoc on a number of North American cities. My favourite line: “In all the kingdom of the living there is no more deadly or voracious creature than the praying mantis.”